WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Wednesday in the wake of a bruising ethics scandal and a mounting rebellion within the agency.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman whose 6th Congressional District includes the VA’s troubled Aurora hospital project, has repeatedly called for Shulkin to resign or be fired.
Shulkin is the second Cabinet secretary to depart over controversies involving expensive travel, following former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s resignation last September.
Trump is nominating Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson to succeed Shulkin, a former Obama administration official and the first non-veteran ever to head the VA.
Jackson has served since 2013 as the official Physician to the President, and gained a national profile earlier this year for holding a sweeping press conference on the president’s health.
“Dr. Shulkin came from within the VA and did nothing to clean up the culture of bureaucratic incompetence that has defined the leadership at the VA,” Coffman, R-Aurora, said in a statement. “I’m absolutely convinced that only someone from outside the VA can clean up the VA, and I hope that Admiral Jackson will be Marine Corps tough in getting that mission accomplished. Our veterans deserve better.”
Trump has selected Robert Wilkie, the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, to serve as the acting head of the VA.
It is government’s second largest department, responsible for 9 million military veterans in more than 1,700 government-run health facilities. The selection of Wilkie bypasses VA Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman, who has come under criticism for being too moderate to push Trump’s agenda of fixing veterans’ care.
Shulkin had continued to insist he had the full confidence of the White House amid continuing investigations over his travel and leadership of the department. He had agreed to reimburse the government more than $4,000 after the VA’s internal watchdog concluded last month that he had improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets and that his then-chief of staff had doctored emails to justify his wife traveling to Europe with him at taxpayer expense.
Shulkin also blamed internal drama at the agency on a half-dozen or so political appointees who were rebelling against him and Bowman, insisting he had White House backing to fire them.
But the continuing VA infighting and a fresh raft of VA watchdog reports documenting leadership failures and spending waste — as well as fresh allegations being reviewed by the IG that Shulkin used a member of his security detail to run personal errands — proved too much of a distraction.
It was the latest in a series of departures for top administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was fired by Trump earlier this month.
The sudden departure comes as Trump is currently seeking to expand the Veterans Choice program, a campaign promise that major veterans’ groups worry could be an unwanted step toward privatizing VA health care. His plan remains in limbo in Congress after lawmakers declined last week to include it in a spending bill.
Having pushed through legislation in Trump’s first year making it easier to fire bad VA employees and speed disability appeals, Shulkin leaves behind a department in disarray.
Several projects remain unfinished, including the long-delayed and well-over-budget Aurora hospital construction project that sparked Coffman’s ire, and a multibillion-dollar overhaul of electronic medical records aimed at speeding up wait times for veterans seeking medical care as well as expanded mental health treatment for veterans at higher risk of suicide.
As The Gazette’s Tom Roeder has reported, the agency also pledged to fix patient waiting times at the Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic in Colorado Springs, which have consistently run well over the agency’s 30-day target, but hasn’t come up with a solution.
Last year, the VA’s internal watchdog slammed the Colorado Springs clinic for falsifying waiting times to make them appear shorter. That report found that among PTSD patients, nine out of 10 had phony wait times recorded at the Fillmore Street clinic.
During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged to fix the VA, which was still reeling after a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, in which veterans waited months for care even as VA employees created secret waiting lists to cover up delays.
Criticizing the department as “the most corrupt,” Trump said he would bring accountability and expand access to private doctors, promising to triple the number of veterans “seeing the doctor of their choice.”
Currently, more than 30 percent of VA appointments are made in the private sector.
The son of an Army psychiatrist and grandson of a VA pharmacist, Shulkin is a former president of the Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey. He was president and CEO of the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and chief medical officer at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.
Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics contributed. This story draws on reporting by Tom Roeder of The Gazette.